Wednesday, December 1, 2010


[Offered for the Commentary section of Education Week]


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

1 December 2010

In a Newsweek article for November 28, 2010, Jonathan Alter, in the process of calling educational historian Diane Ravitch “jaundiced,” and “the Whittaker Chambers of school reform,” praises Bill Gates for his broad-minded views of the best way to evaluate teachers, including “student feedback,” which Alter observes, parenthetically, is “(surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom)...”

Now, who is it that could be surprised that students might be able to predict which teachers would be successful in the classroom, Mr. Alter? How could it be, he must assume, that young students, after their thousands of hours of classroom observations, might know something about what makes an effective teacher and who might do well at the job?

I find the combination of hubris, ignorance and condescension revealed by that parenthetical aside to be truly astonishing.

Recently Randi Weintgarten told Jay Mathews in an interview that in considering school reform it was important to start from the bottom up, that is with teachers.

Hasn’t a single Edupundit or Union Leader noticed that “below” the teachers, if we want to start from the bottom up, are the students? You know, the ones who have always been there, observing and learning a lot about teachers, who they are, what they can do, and what it would take to make classrooms and schools do their job better. As John Shepard has pointed out to me: “Can we not—using W.C. Field’s paraphrase—see the handwriting on the floor?”

But perhaps someone has indeed thought of asking them. Tony Wagner at Harvard conducted a focus group of recent graduates for a suburban high school and was quite surprised by much of what he learned, but when I asked him how many high schools he knew of which did conduct such inquiries to learn how they could improve, he said he only knew of three in the country.

We are not asking students, so they are not telling us, no surprise there. But perhaps we are not asking them because, don’t you know, they are just kids. I know something about those kids because I was a teacher for ten years and for the last 23 I have been seeking out and publishing their serious academic expository writing. I know that some of my authors have graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, Princeton and Yale, that some of them have become Rhodes Scholars, Marshall Scholars, and doctors, lawyers, and chiefs of various kinds. Why is it so easy for us to forget that every Nobel Prize winner was once a high school student sitting there as an interested observer, learning about teachers, classrooms and schools?

But we don’t think to ask them. We don’t benefit from their years of experience studying the education we are offering them. This stupidity on our part has resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars and centuries of person-years deployed on education reform without making use of any of the knowledge students regularly accumulate about what we are trying to reform. What a sad thoughtless waste of money and time!

Japanese car makers had the sense to allow workers on the assembly line to stop the line if they saw a defect that needed correction, and they have led the world in quality work.

While it is no doubt impossible for us even to imagine giving students the power to stop a teacher who was doing a terrible job, why don’t we at least give some thought, with all our heavy thinkers and all our research budgets, to trying to discover at least
a tiny bit of what some of our more thoughtful students have observed over their decades in our schools?

We could actually consider asking for and even taking some small bit of their advice on how to educate them and their peers better. After all, we landed on the Moon within a decade, didn’t we? And brought the astronauts safely home...surely we could ask a few students a few questions, and listen to the answers, couldn’t we?

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